August/September 2009 - Vol. 32
Upon returning to the United States from a mission trip to India I was asked to give a presentation to a small group about my journey and what I had experienced. Being a child of the digital age, when I talk to people – even just a friend at the bus stop – I have to use power-point. I decided to call my power-point, “India 2009: Touching the Void.” I thought it sounded kind of cool: vague, artsy, and meaningful.
After the presentation, a friend asked me why I had used the title from a book about mountaineers in the South American Andes. I was more than a little taken aback and mumbled something incoherent to get out of the conversation and move away. I had stolen a title. I had tried to pass off something I’d seen on a film store shelf as a memory of my own – it mattered little that I had done it unconsciously – that almost made it worse.
One of the most difficult things to do is to explain to someone in the Western world that they are a sinner. In the grand scheme of things, our problems could be a lot worse. Though jobs are tighter and harder to find in the recession, we won’t starve. Although our children may not go to the best schools in the country, they’ll get a decent education. Although we may never own the Porsche” we deserve,” we do have a car – and Toyota’s not such a bad brand anyway. When we don’t see the effects of sin in front of our eyes, it can be difficult to believe in it. We tell ourselves that the problems that arise around us are a matter of social organisation or of improper regulation, or even because of regulation. To tell someone about the gospel necessitates telling them that they are a sinner – if we have not sinned we have no need for a savior. The reason Christianity is different from all other religions is that God proposes a solution to the problem of separation from him – death in our mortal bodies so as to become alive again in Christ who is free from sin. If I don’t think I’ve sinned I have no need of Christ.
Sometimes I get a little frustrated with
covenant community because, for the most part, we have easy lives. We generally
belong to decent middle class families with good incomes. Our message to
people is to “give your life to the Lord.” Unsurprisingly this often
results in your life going rather well. We don’t seem to connect with the
world around us as well as we should because we are busy “being community.”
We can sometimes begin to look like we don’t have anything wrong with us,
as though we don’t need a savior. The temptation to think like this misses
the fact that we are sinners. The reason I need a savior is because I lose
my temper or drink too much or am prideful, but it’s also simply because
I’m a human being. Humanity is a sinful condition.
What I saw in India was original sin. People who lived on the side of the street and were thankful that they had a roof over their heads, though no indoor plumbing. Orphans living in the Happy House who had a high chance of dying from the cancer that had killed their parents. Expensive clothing stores that welcomed me – a white foreigner – and shooed away the street children our team was trying to connect with. Original sin is nobody’s fault and it is everybody’s. The reason people in the developing world are hungry is because of the choices we all make – but it is first because of original sin. The reason people in the Western world lose their house to foreclosure is again, at root, because of original sin. If the human race acknowledged its dependence of God and we fully honoured him with our lives, these things would not happen. Because we do not, they do. And they occur with such a depressing regularity wherever you go that they make the word “original” seem like a bad pun. It’s an old adage that the devil does not make bad things happen to the world, he just wrecks the good ones. This is why India made me think of original sin: there is so much good life there, and I thought I had touched it. Perhaps I had, but when I went to explain it to the first people who asked me about it I used a tired cliché. I reached into the back of my mind and came up with a phrase and an image [touching the void] that had stained me at some point in my past and I believed it was my own.
I think this is the way original sin works. We don’t remember how we got it but we know it’s ours. We don’t notice committing it but we recall the feeling. Somewhere in ages past it leaked into the world and started to change it, and no matter how we try to avoid the thought or the notion of it, it is part of us. We are all “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” – there is a burden with that inheritance, a bequest in a will that is mainly debt to be serviced. There is sharp inequality in our world – an inequality which, in truth, one man cannot fix. There is a depressing “hugeness” about the presence of sin (once one accepts that it exists) which tempts us to think that we can never overcome it – never make a dent in the edifice of its being or never cross over the chasm which it has built in us and the world which God created as “good”. Once I accept the sin of my father Adam, however, there is a revision, or perhaps more truly, a reversion. The Bible says of Christ that, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth” (Col 1:15-16). Now, all human affairs hang on Christ because they were created in him in the first place and so I need no longer worry for the sin of my father – which is my sin. Although through my father Adam I am sinful, through Christ my sin has now been dealt with - he has hung it upon himself, he has “reconciled to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20). As Watchman Nee points out in The Normal Christian Life, “We need not work to die, we need not wait to die, we are dead. We need only recognise what the Lord has already done, and to praise him for it.” When I look at things in that light, they make more sense, or at least they are more manageable.
I don’t need to fix original sin – it has been done for me. I need only accept that I am a sinner and then I can enter into God’s grace and mercy and begin to live in it. I don’t need to fix the financial crisis or solve world hunger – those are perhaps good things to work towards but they are not the starting point. I need to realise that I am sinful, that it is part of my condition and will always be. I need to ask forgiveness to the people I have hurt, give back to Christ what I have taken as my own and accept the sacrifice he made for my sins, but that’s it. There’s nothing more to say about it. I must confess I found this wonderfully freeing during my time in India. I was able to spend time with the people there, play with the kids and talk to the old folks without worrying about the light fading from the evening and the looming problem of bedtime – it was in someone else’s hands. The hands of good brothers and sisters in the Sword of the Spirit who are doing the same things people all around the world are doing. Preaching the same message to their friends to “give your life to the Lord,” leading busy lives taken up with the process of “being community.” The sin of our first father was a terrible thing – leading to corruption and schism in the world – but the solution to that problem is a solution to all problems. It may not allow you to fix world hunger just yet, but it might allow you to touch someone, without guile, and that will do for me as a starter.
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